Budget bill puts Congress in US aid driver's seat

By Michael Igoe 02 May 2017

The U.S. Capitol. Photo by: Valerie / CC BY-NC-ND

Late Sunday night, the United States Congress agreed to a budget deal to fund the federal government for the remainder of the fiscal year and avoid a government shutdown. But the spending plan also sent a reassuring message from lawmakers to the U.S. global development community, whose programs have been under threat from the Trump administration.

Less than a week after a leaked document outlined massive cuts to U.S. foreign assistance under consideration by the White House, the fiscal year 2017 omnibus deal struck a reassuring tone about the future of U.S. global engagement. The trillion-plus dollar budget deal maintains spending for most foreign aid programs, includes additional funding for international famine relief, and requires the administration to consult with Congress before closing missions or restructuring departments.

The omnibus bill, which Congress will likely vote on this week and then send to the president for his signature, would bring fiscal year 2017 foreign affairs appropriations to $57.5 billion, which is $4.6 billion more than the enacted 2016 amount.

That total includes $3.8 billion for international disaster assistance, of which $990 million is set aside for famine response in Africa and the Middle East. The budget deal also includes roughly $3 billion for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s development assistance account, which the leaked White House budget document proposed cutting.

Those proposed budget moves — along with reports that White House officials had discussed consolidating foreign affairs programs — gave rise to speculation that the Trump administration might seek to merge USAID into the State Department. The leaked document also indicated a large number of USAID missions — 30 to 40, according to some Devex sources — would have to close to achieve the desired budget reductions. This omnibus deal includes a provision that would give Congress a voice in any discussion that would seek to bring about those changes.

The budget bill requires the secretary of state to report to Congress, “prior to implementing any reorganization of the Department of State or the U.S. Agency for International Development.” That report must detail the impact on personnel, the process used to identify any merger or closing of “any operating unit,” the impact those moves would have on oversight, and the national security interest they would serve.

“This is Congress saying, ‘we’re watching you. If you’re going to think about reorganizing our nation’s development capacity, you’re not going to do it without us.’ This isn’t going to happen under the radar,” Ian Koski, director of communications at the ONE Campaign, told Devex in an email.

Via Twitter

The Trump administration had proposed budget cuts for the current fiscal year — including nearly $3 billion from the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee — which this omnibus bill largely ignores. In contrast, this budget represents a much greater sense of continuity in support for U.S. global development programs, and suggests that the U.S. Congress, and not the White House, is driving federal budget decisions — and perhaps has been for quite some time, as Jeremy Konyndyk, former director of the Office of U.S. Disaster Assistance, wrote on Twitter.

The omnibus budget deal would continue to pay for several things that Trump’s budget proposed to eliminate or defund. The Overseas Private Investment Corp., which the White House included on a list of agencies to eliminate, would see a slight budget increase from what it got in 2016. The omnibus bill would also provide funding for the U.S. Institute of Peace, which the Trump administration sought to eliminate.

The omnibus bill also excluded a House of Representatives proposal to prohibit U.S. funding to the United Nations Population Fund and maintained current U.S. funding for the U.N. system — in contrast to the White House plan to cut funding in half.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who last month circulated a bipartisan letter signed by 40 lawmakers expressing support for funds to stave off famines in Africa and the Middle East, applauded the inclusion of funds for those crises in a statement.

“House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Ranking Member Nita Lowey, Congressmember Karen Bass, Congressman Tom Rooney, the Congressional Black Caucus, and congressional staff played an instrumental role in ensuring this bipartisan priority received funding,” she wrote.

Via Twitter

Aid advocates who have criticized President Trump’s proposals to scale back U.S. development programs also hailed the omnibus bill as a temporary victory.

“The funding for the State Department and USAID demonstrates strong bipartisan support as negotiations move forward on next year’s budget, particularly as proposals surface that would pull America back from the world,” Liz Schrayer, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, said in a statement.

This omnibus bill would fund the 2017 fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30. The Trump administration will likely release its 2018 budget request in late May, along with a congressional budget justification spelling out its priorities and proposals. Congress will then negotiate spending levels for next year and submit a budget bill to the president for his signature.

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of what the Trump administration means for global development. Read more coverage here and subscribe to The Development Newswire.

About the author

Igoe michael 1
Michael Igoe@AlterIgoe

Michael Igoe is a senior correspondent for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers U.S. foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider's perspective.


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